Jean Chrétien insists he’s still just the little guy from Shawinigan despite receiving one of the world’s most prestigious and exclusive honours.
The former prime minister, who once forced news mogul Conrad Black to choose between a British lordship and his Canadian citizenship, was invested Tuesday with the Order of Merit by the Queen.
Chrétien is only the fourth Canadian — joining neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and former prime ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson — to receive the award, a “gift from the sovereign.”
It places him with the likes of Florence Nightingale, the late Mother Teresa and former South African president Nelson Mandela, along with playwright Tom Stoppard and broadcaster David Attenborough.
The award is given to those who show “exceptional distinction” in the arts, learning, sciences and public service. Only 24 living members hold the order at any given time.
In a telephone interview shortly after the private investiture at Buckingham Palace, Chrétien acknowledged he never dreamed he’d be chosen to join such exalted company.
“Yes, it’s very amazing. What can I say? It’s amazing,” he said.
Still, Chrétien noted that he’s not entitled to any privileges or title as a result of the honour. Nor does he want any.
“It is an honour. You know, I have the Order of Canada (too). That doesn’t make me a different type of Canadian than you. I just have exactly the same rank in society and if I go in the hospital, you know me, if I’m No. 10, I wait to be the tenth to come through the gate.”